Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure

Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
by Charles G. Munger
Good Painting Practice, Steel Structures Paint Manual,
Volume 1, Chapter 23
Coatings or paints are the principal materials of corrosion
protection for all steel structures. This is true almost
without regard to the use of the structure, whether it be a
bridge, ship, chemical plant tank farm, refnery, high rise
offce building or underground pipeline. Every exposure
of a coating is different, even though it may be used for
the same purpose at different locations. Bridges in Florida
are exposed to vastly different conditions than bridges
in the northern part of the United States or Canada, and
a tank farm in California is exposed to conditions quite
different from one on the Gulf Coast. As coatings are
the primary protection for all of these vastly different
exposures, it is understandable that failure of coated
surfaces is inherent and that time to failure is the critical
dimension in this phenomenon.
Failure can occur for a number of reasons:
1. Improper selection of the coating for the service. Too
often, a coating designed for steel surfaces may be
extended out over a concrete or wood surface from
the steel structure with rapid failure occurring on the
non-metallic surface. Also, a coating which might be
excellent on the exterior of a storage tank may be
a complete failure on a chemical reaction vessel.
Proper selection of a coating for any specifc purpose
is extremely important.
2. The coating may fail from causes inherent to that
specifc coating. Such failure could be chalking,
checking or alligatoring.
3. Adhesion-related failures are most numerous and can
be catastrophic. Such failures are blistering, faking,
and peeling.
4. Failure can occur from the surface to be protected
(the substrate). The coating may be incompatible
with the surface; there may be a chemical reaction
between the surface and the coating; or the density or
smoothness of the surface may cause the coating to
have poor adhesion.
5. The coating may fail from exterior forces such as
chemical exposure, abrasion or severe weathering.
6. The coating may fail because of poor or inadequate
surface preparation or application. Here, surface
contamination, poor surface profle, inadequate
thickness control, pinholes, overspray, improper
drying, lack of cure or holidays can cause rapid failure.
7. The design of the structure itself is often a cause for
severe failure. Sharp edges, crevices, skip welds,
back-to-back angles all are focal points for failure.
All paints, and particularly many of the more advanced
coatings, are complex chemical mixtures that must react
in place on the surface over which they are applied. Paints
and coatings contain a number of interacting ingredients:
resins, plasticizers, curing agents, pigments, extenders,
catalysts, fungicides and solvents. These are applied
to the surface as a very thin flm, a few micrometers
or thousandths of an inch in thickness. The solvents
must evaporate properly. The non-volatile portion of the
liquid coating must deposit in a continuous even flm
over the surface. It must adhere to and possibly react
with the surface. Ìt also may react with internal curing
agents, with oxygen from the air or with water from the
air in order to become an insoluble, relatively inert flm
of low permeability which has good appearance. This
thin flm must then withstand rain, wind, the sun's rays,
humidity, cold, heat, oxidation, physical abuse, chemicals,
biodegradation and other forces. With all of the variables
involved in the formation and use of paints or coatings,
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Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
it is obvious that there can be many causes for coating
The common causes for paint or coating failure which
are listed above will be taken up individually.
The primary requirement of a coating system is that it
shall resist deterioration by the environment in which
the coating is to serve as a protection for a substrate.
Since no one coating, or type of coating, is resistant to
all environments (atmospheric, aqueous, or chemical),
many types of coatings have been developed for service
under special conditions and for application by various
methods. Selection of a paint from among these many
types can be made intelligently only on the basis of the
following factors: the known performance of coatings in
similar applications, the known chemical composition
and physical properties of the paints, and the results of
exposures of the coatings under consideration to test
environments simulating the conditions of use.
Of these factors, the best basis for critical judgment
of the relative suitability of a paint system is previous
experience with the performance of that coating.
Nevertheless, actual frst-hand observations of the
serviceability of a coating can be misleading if the new
environment in which the paint is to serve is dissimilar
or if the composition of the paint has been modifed.
Knowledge of the chemical and physical properties of a
coating (e.g., acid and alkali resistance, heat resistance,
abrasion resistance, etc.) is a selection aid but should
not be the sole basis for fnal selection.
If the durability of a coating has not been proved in
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feld tests or by service in commercial uses, the paint
should be evaluated by accelerated tests. However, it
must be emphasized that evaluation by accelerated tests
should be used cautiously and then only for comparison
purposes. The results of such tests must not be valued
too highly unless there is correlation between their results
and the observed performance of the paint in actual
use. Unfortunately, correlation between the results of
accelerated tests and performance during service is
usually not available.
A source of information by which to select a coating is
the manufacturer of the paint or the supplier of materials
for paints. Yet, such information can be incomplete or
misleading if a precise description of the conditions
to be met is not given to the persons whose advice is
sought or if the basis on which their recommendations
are made is not disclosed to the potential user of the
coating. Selection of paint on the basis of price only or on
the unsubstantiated opinion of a salesman can prove to be
extremely costly.
Mixing of paint systems is often practiced by persons
with limited knowledge of coatings, usually as a matter
of expediency. This can result only in costly failures.
The compatibility of one coat with another is extremely
important to the satisfactory service life of a paint.
Generic types of coatings should generally not be mixed
unless recommended by the manufacturer, nor should
the products of one manufacturer be mixed with that
of another. Only the manufacturer can know the true
compatibility characteristics of the paint system which
he has developed and is recommending. Selecting parts
of paint systems from different manufacturers or from
different generic types without basic knowledge of the
products is almost a guarantee of failure.
Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
There are many failures of coatings due to the basic
formulation, the resins used, the pigments or the many
other ingredients used in coatings. The relation of the
inherent coating failures to coating classes should be
considered: i.e., those based on organic materials and
those based on inorganic vehicles.
1. Chalking
With chalking, the organic binder in the coating tends
to gradually disintegrate on the surface releasing the
pigments and allowing them to remain on the surface as
powder or chalk. This is strictly a surface phenomenon.
While in some cases it can result in rapid reduction
in coating thickness, it is generally a relatively slow
process and one which does not result in catastrophic
failure or severe corrosion to the substrate. Chalking,
or powdering, is primarily caused by the action of the
actinic rays of the sun on the organic binder. Permanently
shaded areas seldom chalk. Humidity and oxygen from
the air also play a part in this phenomenon.
The resins that make up the binder are the key to the
chalking rate. As an example, many epoxy coatings
have a strong tendency to chalk. Properly formulated,
they chalk minimally; however, there have been epoxy
formulations that chalk at a suffcient rate so that a
coating of eight or ten mils thickness can be reduced to
the point where the primer is visible in a one-year period.
On the other hand, acrylic, silicone, and polyurethane
resins are only slightly affected by the sun’s rays, and
a coating system formulated from these may remain in a
chalk-free condition for several years.
Pigments also play a very important part in the chalking
reaction. Some pigments, such as anatase titanium
dioxide, chalk very readily and rapidly, while most rutile
titanium dioxide pigments are very resistant to chalking.
Many pigments tend to catalyze the chalking reaction.
Some black pigments will chalk after a short period of
time, while others will remain for years with little surface
effect. Ìron blue pigments tend to bronze as the frst step in
their chalking process.
The infuence of pigments on chalking is not all bad
inasmuch as they tend to reduce chalking by shielding
the resin from the sun’s rays. Aluminum pigmentation is
an excellent example of this type of shielding. The shingle
effect of the leafng aluminum fake pigment prevents the
sun’s rays from penetrating to the coating vehicle. Almost
any coating vehicle is more resistant to chalking when
formulated with leafng aluminum pigment.
The use of the newer resins, such as the acrylics and
aliphatic polyurethanes, combined with chalking resistant
pigments and the use of coating additives, such as ultra-
violet absorbers, has resulted in paints and coatings which
remain free of any surface change or change in gloss over
a period of several years.
The chalking reaction has been one used by a number
of manufacturers to produce coatings with self-cleaning
properties. When chalking is properly regulated through
the prudent selection of the coating binder and the
pigments, the chalking reaction can be controlled to the
point where the surface erodes slowly, but at a suffcient
rate to keep the surface free from any grime or dirt which
might otherwise accumulate from the atmosphere. Ìn these
cases, the reduction in thickness is uniform and relatively
constant so that suffcient coating remains to fully protect
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Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
the surface over a number of years. Chalking may result
in some color change and a reduction in gloss of the
coating, and such factors must be considered in selecting
a product.
Of all the types of coating failure that can occur, chalking
can be considered preferable to the rest. A clean, chalked
surface, which is free from other types of failure or
corrosion, is considered a satisfactory surface over which
to apply additional coats of paint for maintenance.
2. Erosion
Erosion is a type of failure caused by the wearing away
of the coating down to the base surface or to the primer.
This wearing away of the surface may be related to the
above chalking mechanism. On the other hand, it may
often be aggravated by the surface being exposed to
heavy rainfall, hail, high winds or a combination of high
winds and rain. Sand erosion of the coating caused by
high winds and sand, such as encountered in beach
areas or in the deserts of the west, cannot be considered
in this same category since such erosion may be
catastrophic from one storm.
Erosion is often seen in brushed coatings where the
high ridges of brush marks are exposed because of
the greater erosion of the raised area. Erosion of this
type can best be prevented by the selection of a chalk
resistant coating as described above and one which
tends to fow out to a very smooth flm.
ASTM-D 662 describes degree of erosion of exterior
paints. ASTM-D 821, describes degree of abrasion and
erosion. ASTM-D 913 describes degree of chipping of
traffc paint.
3. Checking
Checking is an age-related failure of a coating. It is
characterized by uneven and generally nonlinear, non-
continuous breaks in the coating. These breaks are
primarily a surface phenomenon and do not penetrate the
full depth of the coating. Checking can be characterized
as "visible¨ if the checks can be seen with the naked
eye, or "microscopic¨ if they can be seen only under low
There can be several causes of checking. It is generally
a formulation problem, which results in surface stresses
in the coating. Ìt can occur when solvents evaporate very
rapidly from the surface and cause the surface to shrink
more rapidly than the body of the coating. It can be caused
by resins which oxidize on the surface or by certain
pigments which apparently catalyze the checking reaction
on the surface. Essentially, it is a stress set up in the
surface, which causes the small checks to appear while
the body of the coating is not subject to the same reaction.
Wetting and drying, heating, cooling and sunlight exposure
may all contribute to the checking of a coating.
While initially the checks in a coating do not penetrate, if
the coating is left without maintenance, the coating will
eventually break down by further checking in the same
area until the checks become cracks and the underlying
surface is exposed. Checking is prevented primarily in the
selection of the coating. A coating formulated with weather
resistant resins should be selected, with pigments that do
not contribute to checking and with reinforcing pigments
that aid the coating in resisting surface stresses.
ASTM Standard D-660-44, reapproved 1976, provides
a standard method for the evaluation of the degree of
checking in exterior paints.
4. Cracking
Cracking is also an age-related failure caused by similar
conditions to those described under “checking”. It contrasts
with checking in that it is not a surface phenomenon
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Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
but one where breaks in the coating penetrate to the
underlying surface. This makes it a much more damaging
type of failure than checking, since corrosion can rapidly
take place at the breaks in the coating. It may occur in
an irregular pattern where the coating stresses are rather
uniform. Ìt may be linear, following brush marks or even
some spray patterns, or it may occur in a curved pattern
with the crack meeting and intersecting in a rather typical
form. A surface such as wood that rapidly expands and
contracts can contribute to cracking. Excessive thickness
of coatings can also cause cracking because of increased
stresses on drying or curing.
Cracking is a formulation defect which can be overcome
by the use of proper weather resistant resins and
pigments plus the addition of two additional ingredients
that help materially to reduce the interior stresses within
the coating. One of these is reinforcing pigments. Such
pigments are fbrous or acicular and act very much like
chopped glass fbers in reinforced plastics. They defnitely
add physical strength to the coating flm. The second
is a permanent plasticizer or soft, compatible resin
that increases the elasticity of the coating. Increased
reinforcing and elasticity both reduce the physical
stresses caused by weathering, heating and cooling or
wetting and drying.
Coatings made from oxidizing materials such as oils or
alkyd resins, or internal curing resins such as epoxies,
are often susceptible to this type of failure since they
continue to cure, become more brittle and shrink with
time. Fully polymerized materials, such as vinyls, acrylics
and chlorinated rubbers, when properly formulated, are
less susceptible to cracking since they continue to cure,
become more brittle and shrink with time.
ASTM Standard D 661 provides a method for the
evaluation of the degree of cracking in exterior paints.
5. Alligatoring
Alligatoring can be considered a macro-checking failure
and is caused by internal stresses set up within and
on the surface of the coating. The stresses cause the
surface of the coating to shrink much more rapidly and
to a much greater extent than the body of the coating.
The strong surface stresses, because of the shrinkage,
tend to create very large checks in the surface that do not
penetrate to the substrate. These can be caused by rapid
polymerization of the resin on the surface, rapid oxidation
of the surface of the coating or a very rapid release of
solvents or volatile plasticizers from the surface.
As an example, some air drying or chemically cured
coatings, when applied over a cold surface and then
heated on the coated surface to speed the drying, often
alligator. Such a reaction may be found on coating the
interior of tanks or tank cars. This is caused by shrinkage
of the surface while the body of the coating, because of
the cold metal, does not change at the same rate as the
coating surface. Basically, it is a physical phenomenon
whereby the coating surface hardens and shrinks at a
much faster rate than the body of the coating itself. It may
also be caused by the application of a very strong, tough,
hard top coat over a softer, more resilient primer. In this
case, the undercoat fows and moves, as the top coat
tends to shrink.
It is almost a rule of thumb that a hard, tough top
coat should never be applied over a soft undercoat.
Asphalt and coal tar coatings are often subject
to this phenomenon. The surface hardens due to
weathering while the body remains soft. Ìt may also occur
where oxidizing coatings are applied over an asphalt or a
coal tar base. Thick coatings are also more subject to this
reaction. While thickness is reduced in the checks of the
alligator pattern, suffcient thickness may remain to protect
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
the substrate for some period of time. As stated under
"checking¨, failure will eventually take place in the checks
due to the reduced cross section of the coating in these
Where a material is used that may result in the alligator
type reaction, a coating with strong reinforcing pigments
or fbers should be selected. Thin coats should be
applied and each one properly dried before the addition
of another coat. Care should be taken to prevent the
application of a hard coating that oxidizes or requires
polymerization for cure over a permanently softer and
more rubbery one.
6. Mud-Cracking
Mud-cracking can be considered a macro-cracking
phenomenon where the breaks in the coating usually
go down to the substrate. Ìn this way, it is a much
more dangerous failure than alligatoring. It can cause
immediate corrosion and result in the chipping and faking
of the coating from the surface. It is not a common failure
of organic coatings that are properly formulated for
weather exposure. Ìt may occur where coatings are very
highly flled and where they are applied to a surface that
dries the coating extremely rapidly.
Mud-cracking is often a phenomenon of water base
coatings and improperly cured inorganic zinc-rich
primers. Because most water base coating materials are
emulsions or dispersions, very rapid drying prevents the
resin particles from coalescing into a continuous flm.
By contrast, where the resins are dissolved in a solvent,
a true solution exists and the resin is in a continuous
phase as the solvent evaporates. Mud-cracking can
be prevented by proper formulation to prevent the too
rapid drying of water base coatings and by the use of
reinforcing pigments. Mud-cracking can also be prevented
by satisfactory drying conditions, by application of the
coatings in thinner flms and by elimination of sags or
puddles where rapid drying could cause this type of failure.
Ethyl silicate zinc-rich primers will mud-crack if applied too
thick (over 6 mils). This generally is caused by the lack of
moisture (too low humidity). Thus, a heavy flm would not
allow moisture to penetrate and properly cure the zinc-rich
7. Wrinkling
Wrinkling is the formation of furrows and ridges in the
surface of a paint system. Ìt occurs when the surface of the
paint flm expands more rapidly during drying than does
the body of the paint. It is proportional to the thickness
of the surface layer that dries more rapidly than the body
of the paint flm and to the difference between the drying
rates and the expansion of the surface layer and the main
body of the paint.
Wrinkling results from a formulation failure and is most
common with oil base paints or alkyds containing driers
that increase the rate of drying. Driers serve two general
purposes: to dry the surface of the paint, and to dry the
body of the paint flm; that is, surface driers and body
driers, respectively. Cobalt compounds are a common type
of surface drier; zinc and lead compounds are classifed as
body driers.
Ordinarily, paints are formulated so that the drying process
proceeds at the same rate on the surface and in the body.
However, when a paint contains an excess of surface
driers, the surface of the paint will swell by absorption of
oxygen and will wrinkle. Such a reaction depends on air
temperature, surface temperature and coating thickness.
Excessive thickness aggravates the wrinkling process,
since the body of the paint cannot cure suffciently to resist
the change in volume of the paint surface. The temperature
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
of cure can infuence the rate of wrinkling. Paints that
cure without wrinkling, at normal temperatures, may
wrinkle if curing is accelerated by baking. Also, if the
amounts of surface driers and body driers are balanced
for curing at a given temperature, a paint may wrinkle
at a higher temperature, because the increase in the
temperature tends to cure the surface more rapidly than
the body of the paint.
To prevent wrinkling, make certain that air-oxidized or
air-reacting coatings are properly formulated for the
conditions under which the coating will be applied.
Where wrinkling of a coating appears to be a problem,
the coating should be applied in a thin, even flm with no
areas of excessive thickness such as runs or puddles.
8. Microorganism Failure
Both bacteria and fungi can cause coating failure. They
primarily attack biodegradable coatings where the fungus
or bacterium derives their energy from the materials
making up the coating. Oil type coatings, alkyds,
polyamide epoxies and coatings using biodegradable
plasticizers are most often affected. On the other hand,
coatings made from vinyl chloride acetate resins or
chlorinated rubber coatings using non-biodegradable
plasticizers have excellent resistance to biological attack.
One example of the comparative resistance of two similar
coatings is in their exposure to sewage conditions. A
polyamide epoxy may rapidly disintegrate due to bacteria
or fungi attack under severe sewage conditions. On the
other hand, a polyamine epoxy can remain unaffected
under the same exposure. A fungus attack often occurs
on the north or shady side of a structure under damp,
humid conditions. A coating under these conditions turns
grey or green, with black splotchy areas over the surface.
Ìn these areas, a 10-power glass reveals fungus growths
acting on and within the coating. Prevention of such attack
is primarily by formulation of the coating.
Fungus attack is reduced or completely eliminated
in oil type coatings by the addition of zinc oxide,
fungicides, bactericides or a combination of the three to
the formulation. In non-oil type coatings, such as pure
epoxies, vinyls or chlorinated rubbers, plasticizers or
modifers should be nonbiodegradable.
ASTM-D-3274 describes degree of surface disfgurement
by fungal growth or soil and dirt accumulation.
9. Discoloration
Because appearance may be as much a function of a
coating as its corrosion resistance, coatings that change
color after application and become unsightly can be
considered to have failed. This type of failure is, of course,
one based on formulation and arises from a number of
Many of the resins used to formulate coatings contain
unsaturated photosensitive groups, which, on exposure to
sunlight, cause darkening, yellowing or other discoloration
of the vehicle. Vinyl chloride-acetate coatings, as an
example, if used as clear coatings will turn dark brown or
even black within a few weeks of exposure to sunlight.
Some epoxy resins tend to yellow as do some of the
more resistant polyurethane resins. Proper pigmentation
to shade the basic resin from sunlight is one of the prime
methods of preventing discoloration.
Often, however, pigmentation is not suffcient. Coatings
subject to strong sunlight and weather conditions should
preferably be formulated with silicones, acrylics or
aliphatic polyurethanes in order to reduce any possible
color change to a minimum. Many pigments can also
cause color change in a coating. Some orange pigments
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Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
are color reactive and darken. Certain yellow pigments
tend to grey and whiten. Lead pigments are particularly
susceptible to attack in sulfde atmospheres and turn
dark or even black. Iron blue pigments tend to bronze
or turn brown. Obviously, these pigments should not be
used in formulations where the appearance of the coating
is important and where it is exposed to severe weather
10. Sulhde Discoloration
This is the staining of the flm by hydrogen sulfde.
Hydrogen sulfde attacks paints containing lead or
mercury turning them gray or black in patches or streaks.
Exposure of copper base anti-fouling paints not only
turns them black but can inactivate the copper causing
them to foul rapidly. This often occurs in contaminated
This blackening may be distinguished from mold growth
by treatment with dilute hydrochloric acid; disappearance
of the blackening indicates the presence of sulfde.
When repainting or painting in hydrogen sulfde areas,
use paints that do not contain mercury, lead or copper
pigments or lead driers. If emulsion paints are used
for repainting, it would be necessary to remove any
undercoats, containing lead or mercury.

Inorganic zinc coatings also have some inherent failures
because they are made primarily from silicate vehicles
and metallic zinc.
1. Checking
Inorganic zinc coatings are particularly subject to
checking if the formulation or the application are not
proper. These coatings are highly flled with powdered
metallic zinc and other pigments. The ratio of the pigment
to a relatively low viscosity binder is high, and under these
conditions, rapid drying can cause the surface checking of
the coating.
Many formulations contain fbrous pigments to help prevent
checking as well as special solvents and silicate binders
to aid in controlling the drying rate. The tendency to check
can also be improved or prevented by proper application.
The coating should be applied as thinly as is practical, with
a second pass if necessary to reach the recommended
thickness. As rapid drying increases the tendency to
check, application should be under controlled temperature
conditions or under less severe drying conditions, i.e.,
applying it under cover, or when in the open, in the early
morning or late afternoon. The application conditions
established by the manufacturer should be closely
Since checking is a surface phenomena and does not
extend through the coating, it is much less of a problem
with inorganic zinc coatings than with organic coatings. As
long as the adhesion of the inorganic zinc is unimpaired,
the fne checks will gradually fll with zinc reaction products
and the effectiveness of the coating will be maintained.
Evaluation of checking is covered by ASTM-D 660.
2. Mud-Cracking
Mud-cracking, because the breaks extend through the
coating to the substrate, is a more serious problem than
checking. Adhesion is often impaired with the coating
faking from the surface. Mud-cracking is primarily a
problem of excessive thickness where the thickness
exceeds the manufacturer’s recommendations. It is found,
for the most part, in runs or puddles or where heavy
overlapping occurs.
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The reason for this type of failure is similar to the reason
for checking. The volume of the pigmentation is high
compared to the volume of the vehicle in the dried
flm. Where applied in excessive thickness, the volatile
ingredients in water base zinc-rich coatings evaporate
rapidly with shrinkage taking place throughout the coating
before any chemical reaction can occur. Such areas will
eventually pull themselves away from the surface and
chip or fake.
To eliminate or prevent this problem, apply the coatings
in relatively thin flms (not over the maximum thickness
recommended by the manufacturer).
Heavy coats (over 6.0 mils) tend to mud-crack. For ethyl
silicate zinc-rich primers, mud-cracking is caused by
lack of moisture needed to cure the coating beneath the
surface of the flm.
3. Chemical Resistance
Obviously, coatings containing zinc, organic zinc
coatings, inorganic zinc coatings or galvanizing should
not be used alone or without top coats in a strongly
acidic atmosphere. Because of the zinc in the coating,
acid attack is rapid and the coating would be subject to
failure. Under these conditions, galvanizing would tend
to fail faster than the inorganic zinc coatings, inasmuch
as the zinc in the inorganic coating is partially protected
by the silicate matrix. Strong alkali will tend to react with
the silicate vehicle as well as with the zinc at pH values
above 10.
4. Pinpoint Rusting
Zinc coatings, either galvanized, inorganic zinc or organic
zinc, normally fail at the end of their useful life by pinpoint
rusting. This occurs primarily in areas that are thinner
than the remainder of the coating, starting with an isolated
pinpoint of rust showing here and there in these thin spots.
As time goes by, the pinpoints will become closer together,
and fnally, at the time of full failure, the spots of pinpoint
rust will be almost continuous and general over the entire
Such failure usually occurs after many years of service,
even under marine atmospheric conditions. While this type
of failure can be expected, it can also be prevented by
proper maintenance and repair of the thin areas that frst
show failure. ASTM Standard D 610 provides a method
of evaluating rusting. A maintenance coat of inorganic
zinc may be applied over itself or over galvanizing at the
time of the frst indication of failure. Light abrasion of the
surface by hand sanding or brush blast is necessary for
proper adhesion of the maintenance coat.
5. Pitting in Seawater
Inorganic zinc coatings or galvanizing immersed in
seawater may pit after exposure of from 12 to 24 months.
This phenomenon occurs because of the reaction of some
of the salts in the seawater with the surface of the zinc to
such an extent that the surface becomes insoluble and
no longer provides zinc ions to protect the steel surface
from corrosion. Normally, zinc coatings provide cathodic
protection to the steel surface; however, as the chemical
reaction from seawater takes place on the surface of
the zinc, the surface becomes inert, although it is still
conductive. Under these conditions, since zinc ions are
no longer available, the zinc coating becomes cathodic
and the holiday or break becomes an anode. When this
happens, pitting will take place where breaks occur or
where there are sharp edges, abrasion or holidays.
Pitting can be prevented with a compatible and proper
organic coating system over the zinc, wherever it is
exposed to seawater immersion.
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
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1. Blistering
Blistering is one of the most common forms of adhesion
related coating failure, particularly where the coating is
immersed in water, seawater or other liquids. Ìt can also
occur in areas of high humidity where there is continuing
or intermittent condensation on the surface.
Blistering is caused by gasses or liquids within or under
the coating that exert pressures stronger than both
the adhesion and the internal cohesion of the coating.
This allows the coating to stretch and to form the
hemispherical blister. The blister will generally increase
in size until the tensile strength of the coating is greater
than the internal pressure. If the pressure is greater than
the tensile strength, the blister will break. This is often
the case where a brittle coating with little extensibility is
involved. After the blister breaks, frequently the substrate
will be readily attacked, causing rust.
There are several forces that contribute to the formation
of the liquid or gas underneath or within the coating.
In addition to strength of adhesion the key to most
blistering is the moisture-vapor transmission rate of
the coating. Each coating formulation has its own
characteristic moisture-vapor transmission (MVT) rate,
the rate at which molecular water passes through the
inter-molecular spaces in the coating. Any area of poor
adhesion will tend to accumulate moisture or moisture-
vapor at the interface between the coating and the
substrate. Moisture-vapor in this area creates a vapor
pressure that causes blisters to form.
Generally, coatings with the lowest MVT rate (the greatest
resistance to the passage of molecular water through the
coating) will have the least tendency to blister. Table 2 lists
some typical MVT rates for several of the common coating
types. It must be stressed again that these rates are
for specifc coating formulations and do not necessarily
indicate a positive relationship between coating types.
Permeation is infuenced by flm thickness, coating
pigmentation and means of application.
As blistering is an adhesion-related failure, there is a
general rule of thumb that applies: a coating with excellent
adhesion, even with high MVT, will have a low tendency
to blister. At this point, it should be stated that there is no
correlation between the moisture absorption of a coating
and the moisture-vapor transmission rate. Moisture
absorption is the amount of molecular water which is
held within the molecular structure of the coating. There
are some coating materials which may have a rather
high moisture absorption but which do not have a high
moisture-vapor transmission rate. The converse is also
true, there is one synthetic resin material which has zero
water absorption, yet has an extremely high MVT rate.
This being the case, moisture absorption is not necessarily
a good measure of the blistering tendency of a coating.
Osmosis also contributes strongly to the transmission of
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
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water or moisture through a coating. Osmosis occurs
when moisture vapor passes through a semi-permeable
membrane from the water solution having the lesser
concentration to the one with a higher concentration of
dissolved solids.
As an example, if a coating were applied in a marine
atmosphere to a piece of steel having a salt deposit on
the surface, and if after the coating were applied and dry
the steel were subject to immersion, moisture would be
forced through the coating from the water on the outside
of the coating to the salt crystals on the underside of the
coating. The salt crystals would absorb a small amount of
moisture in the beginning, creating a solution with a high
concentration of salt. Osmotic pressure is created by the
moisture vapor, which has passed through the coating
from the more dilute side to the more concentrated side
of the membrane. The pressure built up on the underside
of the coating may be quite high (several ounces/sq.
in.). Moisture vapor being forced by the osmotic process
through a coating with poor adhesion can cause blisters
to form. But coating may have adhesion stronger than
the osmotic pressure that develops and thus will not
Osmosis can also cause blistering if water soluble
materials are incorporated into the coating itself.
Oftentimes, primers contain inhibitive pigments having
a degree of water solubility, for instance, zinc yellow or
zinc chromate. This pigment is an excellent inhibitor of
corrosion; on the other hand, if a primer made with zinc
chromate is top coated and immersed, blistering will
often result. In this case, because of the solubility of the
chromate, osmosis conditions are set up within the coating
itself forcing water to the area where the soluble chromate
is located. Coatings formulated with such soluble pigments
should not be used for immersion purposes.
Table 3 lists several chromates that have been used or are
presently being used in coatings. The ones with the lowest
solubility are preferable from the standpoint of resistance
to osmosis and blistering.
Another blister forming process is that of electro-
endosmosis. In this process moisture vapor or molecular
water is forced through the coating by an electrical current
in the direction of the electrical pole with the same charge
as the coating. Most coatings are negatively charged, and
if the underlying metal surface is cathodic, or has a source
of negative electrons, moisture is then drawn through
the coating towards the negative pole. Under these
conditions, if there are areas of poor adhesion, blisters
form readily. Incidentally, this process has caused coatings
on structures subject to excessive cathodic protection
to blister away from the surface. Cathodic potentials in
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Humid Air Moisture
Liquid Level
Water or Salt Water (dilute)
Direction of water by osmosis (passage of water through
a semi-permeable membrane from the dilute solution in the
direction of the more concentrated solution).
Moisture Absorbed
by Soluble Salt
Soluble Salt or
Salt Crystal
Soluble Salt or
Salt Crystal
Salt Solution
Formed by Moisture
Vapor on Soluble Salt
Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
excess of 1.0 volt cause many coatings to blister and lose
adhesion. Coated pipelines in wet soil conditions have
often shown this type of failure.
Blistering most often results from poor surface
preparation or applying a coating over a dirty, greasy,
moist or contaminated surface. Such a surface is the
cause; osmosis or electro-endosmosis is the process that
makes it take place.
A coating can also blister when it is used as a lining
and is subject to a warm water solution, with the steel
substrate being considerably cooler than the liquid (for
example, an uninsulated tank containing liquid at a
higher temperature than the outside air). In this case, the
moisture passes through the flm, and because the steel
surface is cooler than the vapor, it condenses underneath
the coating causing blistering.
Another cause of blistering is entrapped solvents. These
are solvents that remain in the coating for some period
of time, usually by solution in the coating resin. If the
temperature of the coating system is raised and the rate
of diffusion of the solvent vapor through the flm is slower
than the rate of formation of the vapor, then blistering will
take place.
Many coatings that dry rapidly on the surface are subject
to this type of blistering, particularly where applied in
the sun or on a heated surface. When the pressure
exerted by the solvent vapor becomes greater than the
adhesion of the paint, blisters will be formed and will
increase in size until equilibrium between the pressure
and the strength of the flm is established. Ìf the pressure
becomes greater than the cohesive strength of the flm,
the blisters will break.
Blistering due to entrapped solvents is common when
baked fnishes are used. Ìt can be avoided if the coating
is prebaked at a temperature high enough to drive out
all the solvent but not high enough to cure the surface of
the paint before the solvent is removed. After most of the
solvent has evaporated, the baking temperature can be
increased to cure the paint completely.
Blistering can be caused also by hydrogen absorbed in
the surface of the steel during pickling, that is, during the
process of removing rust and mill scale before the surface
is coated. If, after the coating has been applied, the
temperature of the coated object is raised, this hydrogen
will leave the metal; and, if the rate of hydrogen evolution
is more rapid than the rate of diffusion of the gas through
the paint, pressure areas will be formed at the metal-paint
interface. When the pressure of the gas under the coating
exceeds the force of adhesion between the two surfaces,
the paint will be lifted off the metal in blisters. After pickling
steel plate or shapes, hydrogen can be eliminated by
heating the steel prior to applying the coating. Preferably
the coating should be applied while the steel is still warm.
There is a strong tendency for some coating materials to
blister on cast iron. Cast iron is much more porous than
steel and contains gases that expand, particularly when
heated. Coatings applied even to clean, sand blasted
cast iron, when it is cold, often blister as the temperature
increases. Ìf the cast iron is heated suffciently to release
the gases and the coating is applied to the cast iron while
it is still warm, blistering will not occur.
Chemical exposure often causes blistering and loss of
adhesion of coatings, particularly where a coating may be
subject to volatile acids such as acetic acid, hydrochloric
acid or nitric acid. These volatile materials can penetrate
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
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the coating and react with the underlying metal surface.
With moisture vapor always present, a strong acid
solution is formed that not only has a strong osmotic
pressure, but also is strongly reactive with the metal
surface, creating hydrogen gas. Acetic acid is a good
solvent for many coating materials, but its presence
increases the probability of blistering.
Blistering conditions can best be prevented by using a
coating with very strong adhesion characteristics and a
low moisture-vapor transmission rate and applying the
coating over a perfectly clean surface. The best surface
is perfectly clean and white-metal blasted (SSPC-SP 5).
It has been proven by many tests and hundreds of actual
coating applications that (with all exposure conditions
being equal) proper surface preparation can reduce
blistering to a minimum or completely prevent it. ASTM
Standard D 714 provides a good method of describing
the degree of blistering of paints.
2. Peeling
Peeling is a coating failure usually caused by a coating
having a tensile strength greater than its bond strength to
the surfaces. This was a common early-day cause of vinyl
coating failure. Ìt has been overcome by vinyl primers now
having superior bond strength when they are applied to
clean - preferably abrasive blasted - surfaces. Any coating
will peel or pull from the surface if it has less adhesion
to the substrate than it has tensile strength, or if it reacts
adversely with the substrate over a period of time, thus
substantially reducing the adhesion.
3. Flaking and Scaling
These two types of failure are adhesion-related. Flaking
is a term describing a condition where small pieces
of coating detach themselves from the surface of the
substrate. Its edges are generally raised up from the
surface and the small pieces can be rather easily
removed, leaving the bare substrate.
Flaking is quite common on wooden surfaces and tends to
occur after oil paints have oxidized for a period of years.
Ìt is a common sight on fences and old wooden buildings.
Flaking also occurs on metal surfaces, particularly those
which have been galvanized. Alkyds or oil type paints
applied to galvanized surfaces eventually age and oxidize
to the point where the flm shrinks suffciently to pull itself
away from the surface. There can also be an interfacial
chemical reaction creating a zinc soap between the
organic coating and the zinc substrate, which causes loss
of adhesion and faking.
Scaling is similar to faking, except that the pieces that
break away from the surface are much larger. This is a
common type of failure on coated, galvanized surfaces.
Pieces of coating several inches in diameter may crack
due to aging stresses, curl and come off in large fakes.
Scaling can also occur where a new coat is applied over
Page 14
Air Cooler Than
The Solution
Steel Cooled By
Air Temperature
Warm Liquid Solution Higher
Temperature Than The Outside Air.
Moisture Vapor Passes Through
Coating And Condenses on Steel Surface.
Coating Blisters Where Coating has Poor
Adhesion or is Applied Over Contamination.
Blister Rises As Water Continues
To Condense As Long As Steel Is
At Lower Temperature Than The
Blistering Due to Thermal Gradient
Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
a very old, well oxidized coating. The adhesion between
the two surfaces, where surface preparation is poor, is
low and the top coating on aging will tend to curl and to
The prevention of faking and scaling is primarily one
of surface preparation. Clean surfaces, with a good
anchor pattern, combined with a coating that has strong
adhesion and good aging characteristics will prevent this
problem. ASTM Standard D 772-47 (reapproved 1975)
is a standard method for the evaluation of the degree of
faking and scaling of exterior paints.
4. Intercoat Delamination
This is the failure of one coat to adhere to an underlying
coat, whether applied as one coat following the other or
where the top coat is applied as a maintenance coating
after some period of time. The cause is generally within
the coating itself. Air-reactive coatings, either those that
require oxygen or moisture for cure, or coatings that
react internally by the action of catalysts or reactive
resins are subject to this type of failure. Compatibility of
one type of coating to another is essential.
In the case of air-reactive coatings, either by the
absorption of oxygen or water, the surface becomes
rapidly insoluble and dense. In the case of internally
reactive coatings, the entire coating becomes insoluble
and dense. In both cases, the coatings are insoluble in
the original solvents in the liquid coating. Solventless
coatings are also subject to intercoat delamination.
The second coat should be applied over the frst after
the initial set of the frst coating, but before that coating
has been completely cured either by internal or exterior
The temperature of application is also critical. Since the
curing reactions are temperature-dependent, the higher
the temperature, the more rapidly the second coat should
be applied over the frst. Manufacturer's instructions
should be closely followed where internally or externally
cured coatings are used. Polyurethanes, epoxies, coal
tar epoxies and oxidizing coatings are subject to this
type of failure. Where catalyzed epoxy is applied at low
temperatures, an exudate may remain on the surface
causing incompatibility with subsequent top coats.
Coal tar epoxy coatings have special problems of intercoat
delamination. In addition to the normal internal curing
of the coating, external forces also create intercoat
delamination. Even though the curing of the coating has
not progressed to the point of insolubility, if the coating
is subject to condensation, rain, or moisture prior to the
application of the second coat, intercoat delamination is
probable. Also, if the coal tar epoxy coating is applied in
the sunlight, even though the coating has not reacted to
the point of insolubility, intercoat delamination may occur
due to the heat and actinic rays of the sun, causing the
surface to cure beyond the point where good adhesion
between the two coats can result. Whenever any of the
above phenomena occur and the second coat is applied
over an insoluble coat, there is a positive interface
between the coats. When water or moisture penetrates
to the interface, any apparent adhesion between the two
coats is lost, causing delamination to occur.
Lacquer-type coatings, such as vinyls, acrylics or
chlorinated rubbers are not as subject to this type of failure
as are the reactive type coatings. Lacquer-type coatings
are permanently soluble in their own solvents, thus
allowing the second coat to dissolve into the frst coating,
reducing the chance of any interface forming between the
two coats.
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
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An additional major cause of intercoat delamination is
the contamination of the frst coat before the application
of the second. Moisture, dust, fumes, chemical fall-out,
oil and grease all can cause this result. The method
of prevention is obvious: prevent the contamination
from reaching the coating during application. Where
this is impossible, particularly when applying coatings
to structures or tanks subject to fallout from adjacent
plants or adjacent operations, very fast drying lacquer
coatings, vinyls or acrylics, if applicable from a corrosion
standpoint, should be used. The second coat should
be applied as rapidly as possible following the frst to
provide good results.
5. Undercutting
Undercutting is another type of adhesion failure that
involves the gradual penetration of corrosion underneath
the coating from a break or pinhole in the flm or from
unprotected edges.
Undercutting often occurs when a coating has been
applied over mill scale. Moisture and oxygen penetrate
the coating and react with the scale causing it to lose
adhesion and thus form progressive corrosion beneath
the coating. The application of coatings over a very
smooth, dense surface where adhesion is critical also
creates a condition inviting this type of failure. Most of
these undercutting failures can be substantially reduced
by proper surface preparation prior to the application of
the coating and the use of a coating with strong adhesion
One of the preferred methods of preventing undercutting
on steel surfaces is the application of an inorganic
zinc coating as a permanent primer before the
organic coating is applied. The inorganic binder reacts
chemically with the steel, providing very tight adhesion
and preventing the undercutting which is characteristic
of most organic paints or coatings. This coating system
has been successful on hundreds of millions of square
feet of surface exposed to extreme marine or industrial
Page 16
Rust Tubercle
Organic Coating
Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
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The substrate is not often considered as being a
major factor in the failure of protective coatings, but
it is extremely important. The common surfaces that
need to be considered are steel, aluminum, zinc,
copper, concrete and wood. Each of these have a
very different effect on the coating. One coating may
be very effective over one surface and completely
ineffective over another.
An example of this is the coating of steel surfaces
for exposure to sodium hypochlorite. Even though
the coating applied may be completely pinhole free,
because of the breakdown reaction of the sodium
hypochlorite on aging into nascent oxygen and
sodium chloride, coatings applied over a steel surface
generally last only a very short period of time. Nascent
oxygen will penetrate the coating and react with
the surface underneath the coating. Tubercles are
formed which break the coating, allowing corrosion to
proceed very rapidly. On the other hand, if the same
coating were applied over concrete, long life could be
expected because the concrete itself is unaffected by
the nascent oxygen. While this is rather an extreme
example, it nevertheless demonstrates the importance
of the substrate to the life of the coating.
Steel may be the best and the easiest surface over
which to apply a coating. Ìt is a very dense, and
essentially non-porous material; therefore, a coating
can be applied over it as a continuous flm with relative
ease. While the steel surface is reactive, it is less
so than many other surfaces over which coatings
are applied, and most coatings or paints adhere
reasonably well over a clean dry steel substrate.
Coating compatibility with the steel is not as critical as it
can be with other materials.
To assure consistently good coating life, abrasive blasting
of steel is recommended to remove all contamination and
oxidation and to increase the surface area for maximum
coating adhesion. SSPC-Vis 2 provides a standard for
evaluating the degree of rusting on painted steel surfaces.
This standard is also available as ASTM-D 610.
Concrete, on the other hand, is a chemically active, non-
uniform, porous surface flled with water and air pockets,
thus making a surface that is very diffcult to a paint
properly with a continuous coating. Ìn addition to a very
variable surface, it is sensitive to moisture, and when the
moisture is confned under a coating, a pH of up to 13 may
be encountered. Only a very inert, highly alkali-resistant
and penetrating coating can be expected to perform
The problems of coating a concrete substrate to obtain a
failure-free coating are primarily physical. The surface is
variable with the most consistent concrete being a hard,
steel-troweled surface (sidewalk fnish). This surface is
preferred for coating. However, because it is often glazed
due to the troweling action, the glaze must be removed
by acid etching (1 part commercial hydrochloric acid and
5 parts water followed by a clean water wash) or a light
brush blast for consistent coating adhesion. A poured
concrete surface is the most diffcult of all surfaces over
which to apply a consistent, uniform, pore-free coating.
All surface imperfections, air pockets and pinholes must
be eliminated. The surface must receive a coat of cement
plaster, hard troweled as described above, or a resinous
concrete surfacer must be applied which will fll all the
concrete surface imperfections, have some penetration
into the concrete for maximum adhesion and provide a
smooth, pore-free base for the subsequent coatings. Both
of the above methods are applicable for the best coating
service under diffcult conditions. Where concrete or stucco
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
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surfaces are coated for decoration only, such surface
treatments may not be required.
Aluminum generally has a dense, smooth surface with
a tight aluminum oxide coating on the surface. While
this surface is relatively stable, it can cause adhesion
problems for some coatings. Where there are breaks,
particularly under alkaline conditions, undercutting and
even perforation of the metal may occur.
Copper provides a dense surface with a copper oxide
flm over it. Many coatings fail to obtain proper adhesion
to this surface. Ìn many ways, it is similar to aluminum,
although it is not as reactive a surface so that coating
failure is not as prevalent. The failure of many effective
coatings is caused by these types of smooth, dense
surfaces. A light dust blasting with used sand or very
fne sand and low pressure air will break up the surface,
increase the surface area and allow adhesion that cannot
be obtained by any other means on either of these two
types of surfaces.
Zinc is a more reactive metal than aluminum, which is the
reason for its use as a galvanic coating. Galvanizing and
inorganic zinc coatings have proven to have a very long
life in many atmospheres. In spite of this, under certain
marine or highly humid conditions, when used as a base
coat, zinc may react under the top coat producing a
voluminous white corrosion product. This causes coating
failure by white salts of zinc corrosion that completely
undercut the coating and lift it from the surface.
There are also coatings that react with the various alkaline
zinc hydroxides to form zinc soaps. These are oil paints
or alkyd coatings and are not recommended for direct
application over galvanizing or inorganic zinc. Top coats
for zinc surfaces should be inert, thoroughly compatible
with zinc, have high adhesion and a low MVT rate. Certain
vinyls, epoxies and chlorinated rubbers work well. Zinc
also has a smooth surface; however, once it is oxidized
by exposure to the atmosphere for a period of several
weeks or months, the smooth surface tends to disappear,
providing much better adhesion. Ìf a new galvanized
surface must be coated, it should be lightly dust blasted,
as indicated for the aluminum or copper surfaces, or it
should be chemically treated with a zinc surface treatment
(commercially available) prior to coating.
Wood has its own inherent characteristics which cause
coating failures. Ìt is very moisture sensitive and will swell
during times of high humidity and shrink when conditions
are dry. This dimensional change can take place on a
daily cycle, in addition to climatic changes which occur
over longer periods. Wood has two types of surfaces:
that provided by very dense winter grain and the rather
porous, soft summer grain. This is very characteristic of
woods such as Oregon pine, cedar, ash and many other
open-grained woods. Maple, birch and woods which are
very dense are somewhat less of a problem, although
both types of surface, i.e., summer and winter grain, are
present. These grains tend to expand and contract at a
different rate due to varying humidity and temperature,
and any coating which is applied over these surfaces and
which will not expand and contract with them, will tend to
fail rather quickly along the grain boundaries.
Any coating which is applied over a surface must be
thoroughly compatible with that surface, must have strong
permanent adhesion to it and must not chemically react
with it. Unless the coating has these capabilities, failure is
The failure of a coating over a used surface is much
more probable than when applied over a perfectly new,
original surface. This has been proven many times. As an
example, tanks in the west Texas oil felds, where sulfdes
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Causes and Prevention of Paint Failure
Ponderosa Protective Coatings™
are a problem, have been repaired by the use of new
steel sheets. The entire surface of the tank was then sand
blasted to white metal and the coating applied with equal
care over the new and the old surface. Ìn a matter of just
a few months, the coating applied over the old surface
failed, while it was still completely effective over the new
This same phenomenon occurs aboard ships where
corrosion has taken place on steel plates. It occurs in
chemical tanks and on the exterior of structural steel
bridges. This problem occurs to the greatest extent on
steel surfaces and in areas where severe corrosion
conditions exist. The previous use of the steel must be
taken into consideration in order for the coating to be
effective. The problem is the retention of very minute
quantities of corrosion product in the rough corroded
areas of the steel, and when the contamination is not
completely removed, they continue to react with the
moisture vapor which can penetrate the coating, causing
early failure in the previously corroded area.
There are two methods that can be used to improve this
situation. 1) After the original blasting, react the surface
with a dilute phosphoric acid solution (5%), allow it to dry,
and then re-blast the surface. This procedure produces
a reaction that allows the minute amounts of corrosion
product to be removed on the second blasting. 2) The
second procedure, where an inorganic zinc coating can
be used as a permanent primer, is a very satisfactory
one. The inorganic zinc coating tends to react with the
minute amount of corrosion product on the surface,
eliminating its corrosive tendency, and at the same time
to react with the steel surface to provide a very strong
chemical bond. Following the application and cure of
the inorganic zinc, the required top coating can then be
Do not underestimate the problems involved with used
steel surfaces. Untold failures of coating have occurred
because this problem of prior use was not recognized.
Used aluminum and zinc surfaces are less of a problem.
However, care should be taken whenever a surface has
been subjected to serious corrosion.
Wood and concrete are defnitely affected by previous use.
Both can absorb and retain soluble or reactive materials,
which if not removed prior to the application of the coating,
will cause blistering, lack of adhesion and coating failure.
The density or smoothness of a surface over which a
coating is applied is extremely important. As an example,
cold rolled steel is much more diffcult to coat than hot
rolled steel with the mill scale removed. Cold rolled steel
has an extremely dense, smooth surface, and it has
proven in the laboratory many times that a coating applied
over such a surface compared to a coating applied over a
sand blasted, cold rolled surface will fail much faster when
both are subject to the same conditions. The problem,
of course, is that the very dense, smooth surface does
not allow the same quality of adhesion of the coating as
does the one that has been roughened and that allows
mechanical adhesion in addition to normal wetting of the
Cleanliness of the surface is vitally important, of course to
the life of any coating. It is a rule of thumb that any coating
applied over a perfectly clean surface will last longer and
be more effective than the same coating applied over
a lesser surface. This applies to metals, concrete and
wood to the same degree. Ìt also applies to the repair
and maintenance of coatings as well as to original coating
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